Guided Imagery


Guided imagery is the practice of focusing the imagination on particular symbols or scenes in order to promote physical, psychological, or emotional changes. Usually, these images relate to an individual’s illness, accident, or personal issues. Using guided imagery may unearth previously unknown feelings and personal insights, as well as aid in the reduction of stress. Often, the individual is asked to imagine health and happiness in place of the original painful or unhappy image. Additionally, guided imagery may be used to help individuals cope with health conditions that are taxing in both a physical and emotional sense. Another type of guided imagery is called “visualization”, which is a creative imagery that emphasizes visual sensations.

Guided imagery has been shown to be able to diminish the perception of pain, control anxiety, and lower blood pressure. It is one of the most popular complementary treatments (meaning in conjunction with other treatments) in the world, likely due to its proven effectiveness. Because stress may depress immune function and anger may increase the likelihood of heart disease, persons practicing guided imagery focus on feelings of relaxation and control. These positive, optimistic, and confident feelings may improve overall health and well-being. Generally, guided imagery teaches people to avoid negative thoughts which may trigger a breakdown, and instead focus on positive imagery which can lead to good health.

History of Guided Imagery

While it was not originally known as guided imagery, civilizations have been using the power of positive symbols and thought for centuries. In classical Greek culture, imagery was part of the practice of traditional medicine, used to maintain one’s physical and mental health. Renaissance doctors echoed this view, believing that one’s mental and emotional state could positively or negatively affect mental and physical health.

Sigmund Freud re-popularized the notion that physical and mental health are inextricably linked, showing that hysteria was a physical manifestation of an emotional trauma. In the 1970s, researchers encouraged cancer patients to imagine white blood cells as warriors fighting cancer cells, and found positive results.

Guided imagery was further developed in the 1970s as a complementary therapy after it was found that positive emotions and thoughts can have positive effects on mental and physical health. Guided imagery today may be used to treat any condition that has an emotional component. Common uses include treating anxiety, pain, insomnia, addiction, and using it to help care for a person at the end of their life. Used in conjunction with traditional medical care, guided imagery may also be used to ease pain and improve quality of life for persons suffering from serious ailments such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Today, guided imagery is an accepted and established form of treatment, used in conjunction with traditional medicine.

How Guided Imagery is Practiced

When individuals visualize tasks, they use the same part of the brain that is active when actually physically engaging in these tasks, according to research using brain imaging technology. When an individual uses their imagination, they also use the same part of the brain that controls the body’s vital functions such as breathing, digestion, and the beating of the heart. Directed imagination can be used to help lower blood pressure and reduce an individual’s heart rate.

Guided, or directed imagination, may be done individually or with the help of a professional. Individuals may learn the basic techniques of guided imagery through books or videos. Sessions conducted by professionals are also widely available. 

How Guided Imagery Works

To use guided imagery, the individual first takes a few moments to relax. Second, the individual tries to visualize images that they feel relate to their health issue. Common images include an object that symbolizes their symptom(s). Then, the professional or the individual themselves asks questions about the object as to why it is there, what response should be given to it, and what can be learned from it. For example, a common image conjured up by individuals is a sort of inner sanctuary in response to pain.

Individuals may also try mental imagery by imagining a symptom and then drawing it. Often, the person will be asked to use pen, pencil, or crayon to draw an image of their symptom in order to confront the symptom directly. The process of identifying, visualizing, and then explaining these symptoms is often therapeutic for individuals, and may also shed light on the underlying causes of certain symptoms.

Conditions Benefited by Guided Imagery


Guided imagery may be used to control anxiety attacks by reducing the fear associated with certain things that cause anxiety attacks.


Pain Management Nursing published a 2004 study which found that pain and mobility problems associated with osteoarthritis were significantly reduced after a twice-a-day regimen of listening to guided imagery tapes and then practicing progressive muscle relaxation.


A 2005 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that guided imagery targeted at biological functions reduced asthma symptoms such as wheezing and anxiety, and also helped disease management for the 70 asthma patients in the study.

Brain Injury

Hong Kong Polytechnic University rehabilitation experts, in a controlled trial of 46 stroke patients, found that guided imagery helped individuals either learn or re-learn tasks at a higher rate than conventional functional training.

Chronic Conditions

Guided imagery may help relieve the pain associated with asthma and arthritis by relaxing muscles.

Heart Disease

Guided imagery may reduce blood pressure by limiting stress and anger, and may improve survival rate when used in conjunction with traditional medical care.

Medical Procedures

Guided imagery may ease the pain associated with a biopsy or chemotherapy when used prior to the procedure. Guided imagery therapy may also reduce nausea and other common-side effects associated with these procedures.

Pain Relief

According to a 2004 study published in Orthopedic Nursing, guided imagery may help relieve headaches, as well as neck and back pain. The study found that patients given guided imagery audiotapes after joint replacement surgery experienced less pain, reduced anxiety, and shorter hospital stays than patients given music audiotapes.


Guided imagery may be used to relax a woman in labor, thus reducing the likelihood of birthing complications and caesarean sections. Guided imagery may also be able to reduce the perception of pain when giving birth.

Quitting Smoking

According to a study by the University of Akron in Ohio, the rate of persons successfully quitting smoking was twice as high among individuals who practiced guided imagery, as opposed to persons given standard education and counseling.


  1. Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  2. Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  4. Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  5. Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)


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